What do we mean by "systems approaches" in agriculture research?

Wednesday, 4 January, 2017
Workshop systems approaches I
Researchers are increasingly encouraged to adopt systems approaches in their work on agriculture, food and non-food value chains. But what do we actually mean by systems approaches? Why do we think systems approaches could deliver better results?

The European Commission invited experts to a workshop in December 2016 to discuss the matter, with the end goal to improve the programming and conduct of research activities.

The strategic approach to EU agricultural research and innovation was released by the European Commission in July 2016 and set systems approaches as one of the five cross-cutting issues to better embed in future research. The paper, which aims to frame activities programmed under Horizon 2020, further explains that "meeting the challenges facing the agricultural and food and non-food systems means dealing with complexity and working in an integrated manner so that proposed solutions are fit for both the problem they address and the main objectives being pursued for the system as a whole".

Moving from theory to practice on this concept of systems approach is however not simple. What characterises systems approaches? Which systems are we talking about? Which boundaries should be considered? Why do we think systems approaches could deliver better results? Under which conditions? A deeper understanding is needed to sharpen the programming of Horizon 2020 in this respect and guide the science community.

That is why the European Commission invited 22 experts from a variety of research fields to join a first workshop exploring these questions last month. The experts worked for 1.5 days in a participatory manner on what makes an approach systemic and why systems approaches could prove useful in future research activities.

The outcomes of the discussion are being compiled into a draft report, on the basis of which a second workshop will be organised. The second workshop, foreseen in spring 2017, will look into how to concretely better embed systems approaches in agricultural research, leading to a final guidance document meant to improve both the programming and conduct of research activities.

Learn more

Workshop documents


From field to landscape: integration of the crop/livestock/tree sub-systems

From farm to society: trade-offs between the societal challenges

Systems concepts: strengths and weaknesses


The report will be made available in its final version after the second workshop.